Grand Avenue

by Greg Sarris

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


Anna is the only child of Ida. She is married to Albert Silva, with whom she has eight children, including Jeanne and Frankie. In “The Progress of This Disease,” Anna’s first-person account, Anna tries to cope with Jeanne’s terminal cancer diagnosis. Anna reads up extensively on cancer, ironically observing how unaffordable the disease’s new-age treatments are:

Laetrile, coffee enemas, diets of brown rice and sprouts, support groups—none of which I had time or money for. . . .

These lines sum up Anna’s predicament. She is caught between nurturing her family and supporting them with her work at the local canning factory, and between her clan’s past and the demands of the larger, white world. With Albert being an alcoholic, Anna functions almost as a single parent. Driving Jeanne on excursions around Sonoma County, Anna reminisces about her childhood and her shared past with her community, including the death of her aunt Sipie. Sipie’s death was supposedly caused by the witchcraft of Dewey, Sipie and Ida’s brother and Anna’s uncle. The extended family believe Dewey’s act poisoned subsequent generations and caused Jeanne’s cancer; however, it is unclear if Anna herself shares this view, since Dewey and Ida live with her.


Frankie is the young teenage son of Anna and Albert Silva and the narrator of “Slaughterhouse.” He feels pressured to perform masculinity in front of his peers. After he and his friends draw straws to see who will enter a slaughterhouse where a pimp conducts business, Frankie is forced to go in. In the terrible-smelling space, Frankie comes across something which horrifies him: his cousin Ruby dancing with two prostitutes. Since Frankie is in love with Ruby, witnessing her seeming degradation profoundly affects him. Frankie exhibits misogynist hypocrisy in the way he views Ruby’s sexuality as dirty, while he himself is comfortable with masturbating to adult magazines in the presence of his friends.

Nellie Copaz

Elderly Nellie is a traditional Pomo medicine woman, basket-weaver, and keeper of songs. Nellie epitomizes how elders among the Pomo Indians deal with their cultural dislocation by tightly adhering to traditions. Nellie is the mother of Catherine, whom she had with her first husband, Charles Benedict, and the mother of four other children with her second husband, Alfred Copaz. Nellie’s centrality to the narrative of Grand Avenue can be gleaned from her multiple appearances: apart from “Waiting for the Green Frog,” she is also the narrator of “The Water Place,” and she appears in other stories, such as “Sam Toms’s Last Song,” as well. In “Waiting for the Green Frog,” Nellie describes the songs that inspire her healing powers. These songs are associated with a magical green frog that appears to Nellie from a “riverside,” the home of her ancestors. In “Sam Toms’s Last Song,” she defeats the attempts of wily patriarch Sam to control her, thus exhibiting her feminist sensibility. In “The Water Place,” the last story in the book, Nellie’s young relative Alice seeks her out for a basket-making apprenticeship. The weaving of the baskets is symbolic of the transmission of heritage, as well as the healing of history’s wounds. As she teaches Alice how to weave baskets, Nellie relives the complex history of her clan.

Look at what the Spanish did, then the Mexicans, then the Americans. All of them, they took our land, locked us up. Then look at what we go and do to one another.

Nellie’s words, which appear near the end of the book, are significant, as they explain the painful legacy of cultural violence faced by the Pomo Indians who have settled in Santa Rosa. The trauma of...

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displacement and colonization now manifests itself as ennui, alcoholism, and infighting. But with younger members like Alice showing the way, healing is possible.

Albert Silva

Albert Silva is a Portuguese American who is married to Anna, who is Pomo Indian. Together, they have eight children, including Frankie. Although he initially falls in love with Mollie, Albert ends up marrying her cousin Anna. But Albert continues to be haunted by his memories of Mollie, as seen in the story “Joyride,” which he narrates. In “Joyride,” Albert picks up a sixteen-year-old girl who calls him “Unky” and, with her “straight, dark hair,” reminds him of Mollie. Albert doesn’t know it, but the girl is actually Mollie’s daughter Justine. Just as Albert is tempted to seduce Justine, he realizes she is a “relative of some kind, her family . . . visiting my wife.” Albert is torn between taking Justine for an ice cream and chucking her away from him “like a stone.” Albert is an alcoholic and a philanderer who deludes himself into thinking he is well-meaning.


Alice is the daughter of Mollie and the sister of Justine, Sheldon, and Jeffrey. The first-person narrator of “How I Got to Be Queen,” Alice functions almost like a second mother in her family, preparing elaborate dinners for them and keeping the family peace. Alice is often depicted alongside food, to signal her centrality as a source of emotional nurture. Despite Mollie’s obvious neglect of her children, Alice is respectful of her mother. To protect Justine, Alice keeps her older sister’s partying a secret from Mollie. After Justine hits the younger sister of her boyfriend, Ducker Peoples, Ducker’s older sisters and relatives come to their house to confront Justine. Spurred into action to protect her family, Alice decisively disperses the crowd.

I opened the cupboards and seen the gun. Jack’s shotgun. I ran to the front porch and shot it.

She is saved from arrest by Auntie Anna, Mollie’s cousin, who convinces the police officers the blast was from a “cherry bomb.” Through this protective, empowered act, Alice discovers she is indeed a queen, just not in the way Justine wants to be. Alice also bonds with Nellie Copaz, asking Nellie to teach her basket-weaving. Thus, Alice is the bridge between the her clan’s traumatic past and promising future. As Nellie observes in “The Water Place”:

Something moves in the marigolds, jumps to the edge of the front walk. The little green frog, what else? Then I hear the song and turn, seeing this girl named Alice singing as sure as tomorrow. The frog winks at me and I smile like never before. I’m not too old for miracles.

Sam Toms

Sam Toms is one hundred years old and one of the patriarchs of the Grand Avenue clan. Sam has four children—Dewey, Ida, Steven, and Zelda—with his late wife, Maria, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. However, Sam is hardly a benign pater familias. In “Sam Toms’ Last Song,” his third-person account, Sam is shown to be frail but crafty as a fox.

The day Sam Toms turned one hundred, he awoke with a woman on his mind and a plan for a new life.

Sam lives with his great-granddaughter Linda, who cares for him in exchange for his social security check. However, since Linda largely neglects him, Sam’s plan is to move in with Nellie Copaz and have her care for him instead. This is not unusual for Sam: after his wife’s death, he has often exploited younger women for their care. Sam arrives on Nellie’s doorstep, suitcase in hand, but Nellie sees through him. She tricks him into singing, trapping his songs in her basket, and renders him powerless. Sam has used his songs to poison rather than heal and is therefore undeserving of his Pomo Indian heritage. Nellie’s defeat of Sam is symbolic of empowered femininity defeating toxic masculinity, as well as the emergence of healing.


The youngest of Zelda’s daughters, Stella is an ambitious, hardworking woman who knows a career is her way out of poverty. As the narrator of “The Indian Maid,” she recounts Zelda’s traumatic past as a homeworker abused by the white American woman Mrs. Benedict, as well as Zelda’s escape from the Benedict household. Zelda kept an opal ring from the household as a keepsake, which she gives to Stella. Though initially contemptuous of her sisters, Stella ultimately accepts them, exhorting herself to “Get along. Share.” Thus, she signifies an evolved consciousness, where she doesn’t let the trauma of cultural displacement embitter her relationship with her family.

Steven Pen

Steven is a Pomo Indian and is married to Reyna, an Apache woman, with whom he has two sons. In “Secret Letters,” Steven reveals that he is also the father of Tony, a promising young local athlete. Tony’s mother is Zelda’s daughter Pauline, whom Steven once loved. However, after learning that Pauline was his half-sister, Steven left her. In the present, Steven writes anonymous letters to Tony as a besotted fan, in an attempt to guide and coach him. When Steven’s secret is finally uncovered, his family react with unexpected kindness, asking Steven when Tony will be “over for dinner.” Although his family do not know that Pauline and Steven are so closely related, their forgiveness is another example of how indigenous people can heal the internal conflicts that are a legacy of colonization.